So last night at my church we watched the film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It’s fictionalized but loosely based on the last few chapters of the book by the same title (the one I’m reading). It gives a pretty decent overview of some of the context and events of the Wounded Knee massacre. I’d give it like 3 stars out of 5. (None of the white villains are as evil as Chivington, which made the white “side” a little too sympathetic for my taste, but it did a good job of showing some of the cultural whitewashing and the events surrounding the Dawes Act.)
Anyway. One of the big themes of the film is the power of names, which reminded me of an experience I had last week.
I was driving around the Twin Cities area when all of a sudden I realized — tons of things are named after Indians or generals or other figures or events in Minnesota’s “pioneer history”. A road (and a school) here in Chaska is Pioneer Trail, presumably named for the settlers who came here in wagons to fill the “empty” land. My town, Chaska, is the name of one of the 38+2 Dakota men who were hanged in Mankato in 1862. Heck, our whole state has a Dakota name — Minnesota, “sky-tinted water”.
In the film, the character of Henry Dawes (creator of the Dawes Act) tells Indians gathered to hear his offer for their land to basically “let us not dwell on the past — it’s behind us.” This is a statement I hear a lot when I talk with [non-native] people about Native people and the trauma they have suffered at the hands of white settlers. “That’s ancient history! Why are we still talking about this? It’s in the past!” I often hear. I confess that I myself have thought that.
Well, here’s the thing, folks and past-self — it’s not in the past. It’s literally freaking everywhere, and everywhere we look we can see reminders of the people and events that resulted in the Dakota (or whoever else’s land you’re on) losing their land, much of their way of life, and many relatives who were killed.
Now, when I’m out and about, I literally flinch when I read signs.
“Oh, look — an article in the Pioneer Press — **twitch** — holy crap, our newspaper is still called the name it had when Pa read it during the Long Winter in 1880.”
“Welcome to Sibley County — ARGH! That’s Henry Sibley, an Army general in the Battle of New Ulm who drove the Santee Sioux from Minnesota.”
“25 miles to New Ulm — **flinch** — that’s where Dakota and white settlers fought. There was a battle there.”
“Dinner in Mankato? Whoa, that’s where the largest mass execution in US history took place — and it’s also the name of a Santee man who fought against the settlers, and then was hanged in St. Paul.”
“Ooh, some nice Andrews Sisters music — What? Don’t fence YOU in? Give you land, lots of land??”
SERIOUSLY, PEOPLE — you cannot possibly know the story of this land and NOT have it smack you in the face every. single. day.
And I just learned all this! This has only been happening to me for a few weeks! And none of these people are related to me! And I’m not legally banished from my ancestral homeland because of some of these people!
I don’t know if Dakota and other Native people flinch like I do when they see this stuff — maybe they’re used to it, or maybe they can ignore it, or I don’t know what.
But it bothers me. And it reminds me that there’s a lot more to the story of the land I’m standing on than most of us want to think about today.